50 Shades of Designer Bags

My children could tell you just how nerdy I am since they have experienced my crazy obsession with their school projects (“Oh, no, not foam core again, Mommy!”) and my over-preparedness for classes I have taken (at least half the text book read and HIGHLIGHTED before the semester started).  My  friends, fortunately for me, welcomed me back after I had spent months in the cocoon of writing my MPH thesis. My reading material tends to be the daily New York Times, The New Yorker and the American Journal of Public Health. (I actually have a once a week date night with The New Yorker; I have found it some mornings stuck to my face.)  I have been known (or hopefully unknown) to steal copies of Journal of the American Medical Association from my doctor’s office.  The most recent book I read is Classified Woman by Sibel Edmunds.  Although I do have to confess to having read……no actually I am going to take the 5th on the 50 Shades books.   When I fly I do totally indulge in something like Vogue or Glamour, but that is in response to my suppressed fear of flying and is for purely medicinal purposes.  So when 4 times a year The New York Times has a fashion supplement I feel completely justified in wallowing through those pages of luscious, colorful, crazy expensive designer clothes and accessories because after all, it’s The New York Times.  The Fall 2012 issue arrived last weekend.  I continue to wallow.

It seems that darling little designer clutch bags are very much in style for the Fall.  There’s a page of them in yummy colors and another section called Grab Bags:  Know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, with no apparent apologies to Kenny Rogers.   Somehow I did not fashion forecast well when I bought that big red Prada knock off in Hong Kong for $15.  These little bags are of course very pricey.  They are designed by Celine ($2,100,) Phillip Lim ($625,) Victoria Beckham ($650,) Marc Jacobs ($550,) and Coach (only $148,) among others.  My guess is they are just big enough for a credit card, a lipstick, a cell phone and a couple of condoms…maybe a box of Tic Tacs.   Just the basics for survival at some soignée soirée.

Of course I know what little bags can carry and the impact on health outcomes they can have because I spent about two years of my life studying the contents of little bags about 6” by 4”.  These darling little bags, not so pricey, not so pretty, carry things like a razor blade, string, a piece of soap, a sheet of black plastic: not really contents for a fun evening out, but pretty useful if you are going to have a baby at home in a rural region of Nepal or India or Uganda or Ghana or Rwanda or Afghanistan. At least 350,000 women a year die in childbirth internationally.   One of the leading causes of death is infection which can result from unsanitary delivery conditions.  So these little bags of useful items, called birthing kits, have been developed by several organizations including Zonta International, the World Health Organization and UNICEF. More than a million of these kits are distributed annually, especially in developing countries where maternal deaths are the highest in the world.

The kits have been designed by medical providers and organizations.   They are standardized and able to be mass produced, inexpensive and extremely compact.  Dr. Joy O’Hazy who works with Doctors Without Borders and Zonta told me that, “While quantifiable data is difficult to acquire what we have received is a large amount of anecdotal evidence from our partners about reduced infections and deaths in places like Kenya and Afghanistan.”  (Joy by the way is an amazing person and I have been fortunate to be able to stay in touch with her since completing my thesis.  “Hello, Joy!!!!”)

So here’s the thing I just can’t stop wondering about.  We know that birthing kits save lives, but to save lives they not only have to be available, they have to be used.  If rather than having a pretty little clutch bag, the only thing you could carry your evening supplies for a party in was a plain plastic baggie would want to do that or would you just leave your stuff home? Do you want someone to pick out that plastic bag for you or would you want to shop for something you like or you feel expresses who you are?  Do these seem like silly questions in relation to clean birthing supplies?  I don’t think so.

Social design is based on the understanding that for products to be effective they must include user end participation in the design, i.e., if you are going to design something ask the people who are going to use it to be involved with the design of that product.  How do I know this? I have a brilliant neighbor named Dan Formosa, Ph.D., who is one of the founders of Smart Design, and he told me about social design and he helped me with my thesis.  So I know this is true.  For birthing kits to be truly effective in saving the lives of women and babies, the design of the kits has to include the women who will use them.  They need to be social designer bags.  Not mass produced but in at least 50 shades.   The bags that women use in Uganda need to be Ugandan.  The bags that women use in Afghanistan need to be Afghan.  The bags that women use in Nepal need to be Nepali.  Not only is this social design, it is beautiful design.  All of these countries have wonderful traditional designs, colorful crafts, amazing creativity.

So here’s the challenge for designers.  Design beautiful, inexpensive, small birthing kits that can be distributed and used and can save lives.  You can include women from their countries, you can use some of the proceeds from your $600 pouches, you can engage the design community in saving women’s lives.  You can make preventing maternal mortality sexy and cool.  That’s what designers do.

Here are some direct challenges:

Hey, Prabal Gurung, do it for Nepalese women.

Mimi Plange, for women in Ghana.

Georgio Armani, Louis Vuitton, Channel, Estee Lauder, Gucci, Calvin Klein, Hermes, Prada, Marc Jacobs, Tod’s, Salvatore Ferragamo,  Celine, MaxMara, Michael Kors, Balenciaga, Missioni, Chloe………pick a country and get to know the women there.  And design with them.

And Kenneth Cole, how about some really cool compelling billboards.  You are so very clever.

Perhaps Tyler Brule, the editor of the hip international travel, design, political magazine Monocle would take on the coordination.

So I guess it is just my inherent nerdiness that got me from those darling little clutch bags to preventing maternal deaths.  Or maybe it was the women I met in Nepal and India and Brazil and my friend David in Uganda and Joy O’Hazy , who constantly inspire me and make me think, actually believe, that “it only seems impossible until it is done.”

PS…Hey, Prada, so sorry about buying the knock off.  I promise never to do it again.


There is No Finish Line

 Who could not be absolutely in love with Gabby Douglas? With Alex Raisman, Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney, and Kyla Ross…the Fab Five who won our hearts and medals at the Olympics?  Along with so many athletes we are watching intently, cheering for, sighing for, disappointed with and celebrating with, they are paragons of health, of beauty, of achievement, of competitiveness, of winning.  Even when they fall short (literally off of a balance beam) we know they are at the Olympics because they are the best in the world.

As I watch night after night in my bed, my bedroom being the only place I have a television (very small) and air conditioner (very noisy), I find myself wondering what it is that these young women and the other athletes at the Olympics have that has made them the great athletes they are.  Is it exceptional physical abilities, a drive and commitment to their sport, parents who devoted themselves and their children to rigorous training, some unknown Higgs Boson-like God particle that they were born with? (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/07/120704-god-particle-higgs-boson-new-cern-science/)

I did a little very non-scientific research on “what makes athletes great?”  Here are a couple of results.  The first is from a New York Times blog for junior high students. This is an answer from a 13 year old:

 Okay a lot of things make athlete storng and those things can be by eatting good and also by trying there best.but most importantly is when they never give up  http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/08/what-makes-an-athlete-great/

This one is from an article in Shape magazine from a couple of days ago:

In my opinion, it’s not just the amount of medals you win or how many events you compete in. There is definitely a lot more to being an Olympian than that. I believe athletes like Wilma Rudolph and Jesse Owens epitomize what it means to be an exceptional athlete. Rudolph was born prematurely and spent the bulk of her childhood in bed. She suffered from double pneumonia, scarlet fever, and later she contacted polio. After losing the use of her left leg, she was fitted with metal leg braces when she was only six. However, years of treatment and determination to be a “normal kid” worked, and Rudolph was out of her leg braces at age nine. She went on to become a basketball star before taking the track and field world by storm and ultimately went on to win three golds and one bronze at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. From there, she became the fastest woman in the world and the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympics.  http://www.shape.com/blogs/london-2012-summer-olympics/what-makes-olympic-athlete-great

Never giving up and overcoming difficulties seem to be favored ingredients, and certainly we have seen that night after night.  Gabby Douglas actually did fall off the balance beam and got back on; she didn’t win a medal in that competition and she knew she wouldn’t win, but she got back on that narrow strip of hard wood and jumped and tumbled and vaulted off.

Two things were going on in my head as I was watching event after event and pondering the question of what makes these athletes great: they were perhaps more subliminal than rational thoughts.  One was the often-played snippet from the Phillip Phillips song, Home.

Just know you’re not alone, Cause I’m going to make this place your home

And there they were accompanied by the song: the women’s gymnastics team, the audience cheering, the parents, the coaches.  The Karolyis and Liang Chow literally going to the mats and challenging Alex Raisman’s score to secure her bronze medal on the beam. Win or a fall, you are not alone.

The other had nothing to do with the Olympics.  It was an article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine section from July 29 that I kept getting distracted from and kept being pulled back to.  The picture on the first page of the article, titled Hope in the Wreckage, was of two women who could not look less like Olympic athletes.  Claudia Cox, a visiting nurse is pictured kneeling on one knee at the bed of a women dying of bone cancer at home.  “Just know you’re not alone,” the lyrics seeped into my head.  But it wasn’t just the photo. Claudia Cox works in Jackson, Mississippi a place with some of the worst health outcomes in the country.  Sixty-nine percent of adult Mississippians are obese or overweight: at least 25% of the state’s households do not have access to healthy foods, adequate grocery stores being up to 30 miles away.  The article notes that many of these families buy their groceries at gas station convenience stores. Mississippi has the highest teen birth rate and Human Rights Watch calls the state “the epicenter of the H.I.V. epidemic in the United States.”  Tragic human wreckage indeed. So where was the Hope?  The Hope is Claudia Cox working for an organization called HealthConnect which was founded by Dr. Aaron Shirley and Mohammad Shahbazi, a professor at Jackson State University, based on the community outreach and very personal home care in a program in Iran. The Iranians founded “health houses,” local huts that contain exam rooms and sleeping quarters for community health workers in rural areas to reach the population living in more than 60,000 villages outside the urban areas of Iran.  The community health workers who are all from the villages themselves, “advise on nutrition and family planning, take blood pressure, keep track of who needs prenatal care, provide immunizations and monitor environmental conditions like water quality.”  The services of the health houses lowered rural infant mortality by 75% and substantially lowered the birth rate, two benchmarks of overall improvements in the health of a population.  Dr. Shirley, impressed with the positive impact on health outcomes in Iran, adopted many of the same services, mostly local community members/health workers establishing close personal relationships with patients, encouraging them, counseling them, advocating for them. In one year the services of HealthConnect cut the rate of admissions to Central Mississippi Medical Center by 15%. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/07/27/magazine/mississippi-health-care.html#

I have seen these same health strategies and relationships in the home visiting programs in Costa Rica, in Resource Mother projects in Norfolk, Virginia, in the MIRA project in Nepal.  Community health workers, peer educators, home visitors teaching, supporting and advocating which all comes down to what the best coaches do for the best athletes.

The positive differences in any of our lives are often the results of coaching.  I will never play tennis at the Olympics, I am not even seeded and I don’t play at an exclusive club, but I do have a coach.  Bill is the best; he knows just how to keep me improving and “playing up,” without my getting frustrated (although he occasionally slams one past me just to keep me humble.)  He is also a person who has been there most weekends through many of my life’s changes over the past 7 years.  I missed the opening ceremonies for the Olympics because I was out with two of my other coaches, my yoga buddies Lauren and Julie who have also coached me as friends and guides.  My daughters Kristin, Kierra and Alex keep me balanced and let me fall and are there to get me back up or just sit on the floor with me for a while.  Carol has been coaching me since I was 5. Heller An who is a triathaloner knows good coaching.  I am fortunate to have many wonderful coaches.

Sure we all have our gifts, we all have our challenges, our abilities and disabilities, and some very exceptional people to dazzle and inspire us in Olympic events.  They show us what can be.  So does Claudia Cox.  So do each of us when we refuse to give up, when we open ourselves to being coached and when we assure others that “you are not alone.”

Home Phillip Phillips



Hold on, to me as we go

As we roll down this unfamiliar road

And although this wave is stringing us along

Just know you’re not alone

Cause I’m going to make this place your home

Settle down, it’ll all be clear

Don’t pay no mind to the demons

They fill you with fear

The trouble it might drag you down

If you get lost, you can always be found

Just know you’re not alone

Cause I’m going to make this place your home

Settle down, it’ll all be clear

Don’t pay no mind to the demons

They fill you with fear

The trouble it might drag you down

If you get lost, you can always be found

Just know you’re not alone

Cause I’m going to make this place your home